By Matt Singer
“I wanted to do something completely original and different that I hadn’t seen before,” said Carlos Brooks of his feature directorial debut. Though grounded in the traditions of detective fiction and film noir, Brooks’ “Quid Pro Quo” is indeed something wholly its own; a film that lives inside those genres’ boundaries while carving its own unique place outside them. In the film, Nick Stahl plays Isaac, a paraplegic public radio host who gets an anonymous tip about a guy who tried to bribe a doctor into amputating his leg. Researching the story introduces him to an underground (and evidently authentic) community of “wannabes” who desperately wish to be paralyzed, and to a mysterious blonde named Fiona (Vera Farmiga).
Before the thriller elements begin to congeal, “Quid Pro Quo” is particularly appealing in its detailed view of Isaac’s day-to-day existence; the way in which, for instance, he can’t work an umbrella and his wheelchair at the same time when he’s caught in the rain. But Brooks was quick to point out that those scenes are not about pity. “It isn’t that we should feel sorry for him,” Brooks said, “because Isaac doesn’t feel sorry for himself. But getting passed by that’s a universal image that every human being can relate to. I wanted to defeat those unconscious barriers between able-bodied and disabled people so we could get into who this character really is.” I spoke with the first-time director about his impressive debut on the phone from Los Angeles, where he’s already prepping his next film.
What was the origin of this project?
I initially had this idea of somebody who would be impaired in some way and would get some sort of talisman that would help them overcome that impairment, and in return for that gift I thought they’d have to help the person who impaired them in the first place. I wrote a few outlines and it just never came to life. I finally settled on a story about a person with a paraplegic injury, and one night I started Googling some word that I thought would get me into that world more authentically and found these people who suffer from what’s called body integrity disorder, or “wannabes.”
Did you watch other movies with disabled protagonists to prepare to make “Quid Pro Quo?”
Of course. You’ve got to go back to “Coming Home,” which I think is one of the finest films made that show people with disability. A lot of movies that I wouldn’t name do a really poor job of showing characters in that regard. They suffer from what I suffered from in the beginning of my outlines; I assumed I was more comfortable with [physical] disability than I was. In reality, I was writing about it rather than trying to imagine myself in that world writing from it. A lot of movies are just about [the disability] the characters are just used as devices for sympathy. There’s a Hollywood tendency to show the hero, to prove he’s a good guy, stopping off at the home of a lady who uses a wheelchair to bring her groceries, which is absurd she can get in her own car and drive to the store and get her groceries.
The movie looks unusually warm and romantic for something shot digitally. How did you achieve that?
We did some things that, to my mind, no one’s ever consciously done before. I shot on a Sony 900 camera, and we used the 950 for a few scenes where it was a tight space. My production designer, Roshelle Berliner, and the [director of photography] Michael McDonough, and I experimented with shiny metallic surfaces to trick the video lens into thinking it’s film. I don’t know why this works, but it does. It tricks the chip in the video camera into softening those hard video lines and edges. If you walked on the set, you would think it’s the strangest looking place because Isaac’s apartment was full of wallpaper with metallic inlays. But on video, it looks like film. It gives it this Sidney Lumet-circa-“The Verdict” look, and that’s what I wanted.
Why was that?
I wanted Isaac to be in a very comfortable place during the story. I wanted his world to be something of his own creation, a place he felt he’d really come to master. I could have shot it in a more cinema vÃ©ritÃ© way, and said, “Let’s not design the sets. Let’s go run and gun and shoot handheld.” On one hand, that style of shooting can forgive a multitude of sins, because whatever you do, you’re just being “real.” On the other hand, it would not have been nearly as inviting as what we came up with finally. I wanted the film to be much more seductive.
Given that this was your first feature, did you set any rules for yourself as a director before you started shooting?
I had all kinds of fancy ideas. I wrote a whole 500-page book with notes for myself on every scene that I could flip to while shooting or editing. I called it “The Prompt Book.” I got that from watching “The Godfather” DVD; Coppola does this. The categories were like “What’s the core of the scene?” or “What’s the practical purpose of the scene?” or “What’s the tone?” My favorite one was “What are the pitfalls?” How many different ways can I screw it up? When you shoot it, you realize “Nope, didn’t think of that.” [laughs]
One idea I had was the camera would always stay on the wheelchair level when Isaac is using his chair. Then when he stands, the camera will stand with him so we will feel that elevation and the liberation from that lower level. Those are great ideas, but at the end of the day, those are conceits. When I was actually shooting in my 18-day schedule in every borough in Manhattan, I began to understand that the movie is not about staying in some sort of physical point of view. It’s more important that I figured out his emotional point of view. Plus, when you’re moving that fast, the rules get thrown out. I forgot about even having the rule in the first place.
When you showed the movie at places like Sundance, what was the most popular question at Q & A’s?
[Regarding the “wannabes”] “Have you ever spoken to these people?” or “Are they real?” It’s really centered around this phenomenon. There’s no way around it. There’s something about this phenomenon, as specific and small as anything can be was there ever a smaller subject matter that related to a smaller group of people? but there’s something about it that strikes some universal chord. I can talk and talk about all kinds of things with you, but the bottom line is the thrust of the story is going to be this thing that fascinated me in the first place.
That said, have you gotten wind of any reaction from the real wannabe community about the movie?
No, not much. I think people like that tend to have a very online kind of reality. I’m sure there are people, I just haven’t met them.
So no opening night screening parties or anything?
[laughs] With the catering and the whole thing? No, but you never know…
[Photo: Nick Stahl; Stahl and Vera Farmiga; Director Carlos Brooks on set – “Quid Pro Quo,” Magnolia Pictures, 2008]
“Quid Pro Quo” is now open in limited release.